Program 16: Arts + Robots = Crazy Fun!…

The SEC scientists and I LOVED this most recent program that tested our skills on the gadget/gizmo end of the spectrum. With a few simple items from the dollar store plus a little tenacity (some of the connections can be a little finicky), we repurposed battery-operated toothbrushes into some nifty “robots” that created art!  I’ll stray a bit from my usual style of blog posts to include step-by-step instructions with pictures below (as I found that particularly handy in explaining the project to others). There are many sites that actually provide instructions for how to create versions of artbots, but I rarely found one with pictures (and personally I find visual references very helpful). So here goes!


  • Electric toothbrush + some spares (I purchased the Luminant brand battery-operated brushes sold at Dollar Tree; I found it handy to have a few spares on hand)
  • Needle-nose pliers
  • Box cutter (to cut the pool noodles down to size)
  • Electrical tape + scissors (though masking tape or duct tape probably work similarly)
  • A styrofoam pool noodle (I found these at Dollar Tree as well)
  • Rubber bands
  • Markers or pens (thin or thick – makes no difference!)
  • Spare batteries (just in case the one that came with the toothbrush is a dud)
  • Any other supplies you want to use for decorating

STEP ONE:  Test the toothbrush battery and motor


Step 1

This is a simple enough test. Following the instructions on the back of the toothbrush package, you simply need to insert the battery into the toothbrush and turn it on. I found that some of the toothbrushes were a bit temperamental even at this step. If the toothbrush didn’t work at first, I give the brush a gentle shake or smack with my hand. In a few cases, even that didn’t work…but when we experimented and took the brush apart following the steps below, the motor actually worked fine (just not as part of the original toothbrush casing)…

STEP TWO:  Removing the battery casing


Step 2B

Step 2A

Step 2A

This step takes a little muscle and the needle-nosed pliers. Pull the bottom off the toothbrush, remove the battery, and look inside. You’ll see a circle of plastic – that’s the top of the battery casing. You need to grasp one edge of the casing with the pliers and firmly yank to pull the battery casing outside of the toothbrush.

STEP THREE: Removing the motor with spring

This step was a favorite for a lot of my scientists 🙂 With luck, you may find that the motor and spring naturally fall out of the toothbrush when you pull out the battery casing. If that doesn’t happen, you need to shake it loose from the toothbrush. My scientists and I discovered that the best way to do this was to the throw the toothbrush down onto a carpeted floor. If you use this method, be aware that the spring may detach from the motor. It’s easy enough to hook the spring back onto the motor.

After steps two and three, you should have the following two pieces:


Battery Casing + Motor with Spring

Step 4

Step 4

STEP FOUR:  Put the battery back in the casing

You’ll notice in the picture above that the metal piece attached to the battery casing has a longer straight piece that sticks out above the smooth, curved edge of the casing – and a shorter end that sticks out from the end that has two little plastic “legs.” When you put the battery back into the casing, you want the positive end of the battery to stick out from the same end as the little plastic legs.

STEP FIVE:  Creating the base of our re-purposed motor


Step 5C

Step 5B

Step 5B

Step 5A

Step 5A

For this step, you use the bottom piece from the toothbrush itself (the piece with the on/off switch) and place the battery with casing from the above step into the colored piece. The battery should go into the colored piece with the positive end first. As you’re pushing the battery into the colored piece, you also want to line up the metal square on the colored piece with the metal piece from the battery casing (Step 5B). The metal piece from the battery casing should overlap the metal square on the base piece. When you have the metal pieces overlapping, and you’re sure that the battery is pushed fully into the base piece, you should securely tape these components together with the electrical tape. [It’s okay to have the tape directly touch the metal pieces – you need to make sure this connection stays secure.]

STEP SIX:  Attaching the motor and spring to the battery and base


Step 6C

Step 6B

Step 6B

Step 6A

Step 6A

This is by far the trickiest step – not because it is difficult to put the pieces together but because the connections themselves need to be spot on or you won’t have a functioning motor. Looking at the motor and spring (Step 6A), you’ll see that on one side there are two small copper connectors on either side of the motor. The copper connector on the left is attached to the spring – the connector on the right is slightly curved but is not attached to anything. It is the right copper connector that you need to work with. You need to hook and/or align the metal piece still sticking up from the top of the battery/base component to that free copper connector on the right (Step 6B). I actually found it very handy to have the on/off switch of the base in the “on” position for this step so you can be sure when you have all pieces properly aligned. Once your connection is good and your motor is spinning – with the the base still turned “on” – firmly tape the motor and spring to the battery/base component with the spring in direct contact with the battery (Step 6C).

STEP SEVEN:  Putting the final pieces together


Step 7B

Step 7A

Step 7A

Now we’re getting to the really fun stuff! I cut manageable pieces from the styrofoam pool noodles (about 4.5 inches in length) – you can do this with scissors, but I found it much easier to do with a box cutter. [NOTE: I did this step in advance of the program and then just let my scientists choose their favorite color.]  You take your fully taped motor assembly and push it into the hole inside the pool noodle piece, making sure that the on/off switch remains exposed for easy access. [NOTE:  You should once again test your device to make sure no connections have come loose by turning it “on” at this point.  If the motor is no longer turning on, simply pull it out of the styrofoam piece and retape where necessary.]  Place rubber bands around the outside of the pool noodle piece near both the top and bottom of the piece. Attach as many markers as you want by pushing them under the rubber bands, with the inked ends sticking out from the opposite end of the on/off switch, like legs for your artbot. Now give the artbot a good test by placing it onto a piece of scrap paper and turning it on.

FINAL STEP:  Decorate!

Now that you have a fully functioning device, truly transform it into an “artbot” by decorating your robot and giving it some real personality. I provided our scientists with pipe cleaners, googly eyes, feathers, fun buttons, stray metal screws and bolts, etc. Some artbots can be made using plastic cups and the like, but the beauty of the styrofoam pool noodle pieces is that decorating is a snap! All you need to do is push materials directly into the styrofoam – no glue or tape required unless you choose to add things like pom poms.

Now you can just have some fun!  I actually covered our usual program tables with full sheets of white paper so my scientists didn’t even have to worry about scrap paper. Once the artbots were assembled and decorated, my scientists had free reign of table surfaces to create their art. As some point, of course, the batterly will likely wear out and you will need to pull the motor assembly out of the pool noodle, remove the tape, and replace the battery. But that’s a simple price to pay for such a fun gadget!